What can you tell us about your new book The Almost Lizard?
The Almost Lizard is the fictional memoir of Daniel Lizar, who, when he finishes writing it - on his twenty-first birthday - will kill himself. It's about blurring the lines between fact and fiction, as Daniel is influenced by soap operas to the point where he starts living out his life as if it were television drama, starting off fairly innocuously, but accelerating as he grows older and his game progresses. The story initially charts the lives of his parents before they met each other and spans the entirety of Daniel's life. It's dark in places, but hopefully funny to read as well.
You are currently studying towards a PHD in European Urban Health at the University of Manchester, so please tell us a bit more about this.
My PhD is looking at alcohol-related harms to health in a number of cities across Europe and tests whether strength of alcohol policy is associated with levels of alcohol-related harm. My work is a small part of a much larger, EU-funded project called EURO-URHIS 2, which has collected comparable data for 43 urban areas in Europe and Vietnam (a much harder task than you might think!). I submitted my thesis in December and will have my final exam at the end of May, although I'm trying not to think about that too much right now!
The book is concerned with a TV obsessed society, so what are your favourite watches or do you avoid TV completely?
I really like television - far more than film. I don't think I could have written something like The Almost Lizard without having that interest. That said, I don't watch soaps (Neighbours aside, I can't let that one go). I'm a big comedy fan - The US Office, Parks and Recreation, Peep Show, Weeds, Alan Partridge, Arrested Development, anything by Julia Davis, Chris Lilley and Armanda Ianucci. I like a lot of dramas - mainly American stuff these days because the UK doesn't cultivate really good drama like it used to (I'm thinking back to shows like This Life and The Lakes), although Shameless was once consistently stunning television and is still sporadically so. Breaking Bad, The Wire and Treme are all undeniably brilliant. The Slap was a brilliant adaption of the novel as well. I like dramas where they're not tied to the formula and the need to have an easy pay off each week. Most things I like seem also to be under threat of cancellation at any moment!
The concept is certainly unusual, so where did the inspiration come from for the novel?
It came mainly from wanting to tell a complete life story but lacking the life experience to tell anything but a full life cut short. The auto-biography format felt like the right one because of the confessional nature of the plot. That came about after a couple of abandoned attempts, including starting the same story entirely in the third person. Daniel does seem extreme, but I do think people will recognise parts of themselves in him, albeit less extreme. It's about the chaos of growing up and the need to bend people to your way of thinking, it's about manipulation and attention-seeking and the dramas associated with growing up, a time when everything seems to definite and the most minor of incidents can be all-encompassing nightmares. The inspiration came from things I've witnessed over the years, how in times of high-emotion people do seem to revert to type. When 9/11 happened, one of the more common clichés was that it was just like a movie. At what point did life become 'like the movies' rather than the opposite? All of my books tend to come from lots of different observations, usually ones that have grown into pet concerns of mine.
The book opens with a suicide plan, how difficult was it to write about this given its taboo nature?
It's difficult because I wanted to do it justice without people thinking I was being flippant about suicide and the reasons why someone would do that. It could be argued that Daniel approaches his in a weirdly pragmatic way, and I don't want that to be taken as my statement on suicide. The point is that there are so many paths that take people to that point. The book is so much more about what's in Daniel's head and how that came to be. There is a fatalistic nature in some young men, the genuine belief that they won't live to grow old and that if things go wrong, their whole existence comes crashing down. I think that's reflected in Daniel. The other point was that if people see Daniel's life from the outside, they couldn't imagine why he would go down that path. It raises the question of what is an acceptable suicide, and which ones should garner sympathy, which is played out a lot in the media. Mental illness is still broadly misunderstood because the neurological element is played down in favour of the perception of weakness, or an inability to cope. Daniel's personality has pathological sides to it, but ones that allowed him to function in society broadly undetected. Reading his story, the reader has to decide whether he should or shouldn't have done what he did, and the same happens with other suicides, that decision as to whether it's an 'understandable' suicide. It wasn't easy because I didn't wish to undermine or make like of the subject, but to throw a different perspective on it. There was an inquest in Manchester recently where a girl took her own life by accident, by pretending to kill herself after an argument but it went wrong and she died. There are plenty of examples where life got too much for a young individual and from the outside it seems so pointless because a safe way out of their situation was obvious to everyone but then. I remember what it was like at school when you suddenly fell out of favour with all of your friends and it felt like your life was over, only for the situation to be resolved within the week. It's hard to have that objectivity, especially when you're younger and can't imagine how the rest of your life will play out.
You have contributed to anthologies such as Litmus, Modern Science and Still so what can you tell us about these submissions for fans of this book?
I was the scientific advisor for a story written by Sarah Hall for Litmus, which was an anthology put together by Comma Press looking at eureka moments from the 20th century. Sarah's story was about the discovery of HIV/AIDs which was one of the topics I put forward after my university put me in touch with Comma Press. I met up with Sarah and discussed the story, then provided papers and figures to support the story she was writing, before doing a final review. That was a fun project, although the whole time I was itching to be involved creatively as well. I didn't have a publishing contract at the time, so it was fun to be involved with an anthology and to mix my research work with my passion for literature. It was a fascinating idea and the stories that came out of it were excellent. My written contribution was an afterword, trying to offer a potted history of the development of HIV/AIDs from its discovery to the present day. A similar project has followed and I hope they keep doing them.
I wrote a story called Noise for the Still anthology, which was my first published piece of fiction. This was put together by Roelof Bakker, a Dutch photographer based in London who had exhibited a collection based on the disused Hornsey Town Hall. He met with Andrew Blackman who started gathering authors together to create an anthology of stories inspired by specific photos from the collection. Sam Mills put my name forward and that was that really. I picked my photo, agonised for weeks over a suitable story and then wrote my contribution in one stressed out afternoon when my mood was perfect for the tale I was trying to tell. That was such a strong project - I went to the launch and everyone seemed so chuffed to be involved. The finished book looked great as well. I hope Roelof will bring us back for another one soon.
You have co-run the writing projects The Industry of Guilt and Bad Marmalade, so what can people expect from these events?
These are quite old projects. The Industry of Guilt was a MySpace page and website with submissions from authors enlisted online, all based around how people benefit financially or emotionally from their own, or others, guilt. It was a topic that could have run and run. Bad Marmalade was multi-faceted - we threw gigs in houses, had writers and artists collaborate on stories and had various campaigns and opinion-pieces. Collaboration was the main thing. Both projects lost momentum for various reasons, but for me it was important to focus just on my own fiction for a while. I do love collaborations, though, and have a couple of things lined up in that direction as well.
You have also reviewed gigs and CDs for Whisperin and Hollerin, so who are your favourite musicians?
One of my favourite musicians is Lupen Crook, who I approached to do the cover art for The Almost Lizard. I like lyrics, and his resonate with me a lot. His music gets me more excited than most - no IPod playlist is complete with at least a couple of his songs. His sound is continually developing as well, which is rarer than that may seem. Other than that, Jack White is a long-term favourite, as is much of Conor Oberst's work, particularly Bright Eyes. Pulp is one of my all-time favourite bands, and I suspect that Razzmatazz is my favourite song ever. I'm really enjoying the new Everything Everything album at the moment. The last song I sat up and took notice of was Findlay's 'Off and On.' I think she's on the cusp of a very exciting career.
What is your biggest fear of the 'soap opera saturated culture' we now live in?
I don't think we live in a soap opera saturated culture any more. Things have progressed a bit now, with the advent of reality television, and this newish breed of pseudo-reality that has taken over. I would have written a very different if Daniel had been born ten years later. Reality television gives the impression of easy fame, and it's highlighted how people will degrade themselves for this opportunity. The ratio of humiliation to success is scary, and for many the dream is to be famous, or to be on television, not to actually achieve anything. At least with soaps people devour fabricated horror - reality television lines people up for character assassination and a brief notoriety with no support when the 'dream' falls apart. It's often young people will no concept of the long-term impact of what they're signing up for, believing that a glittering career is achievable. But what is left once the cameras stop filming beyond a couple of token appearances in student nightclubs and a life of reading the mean things people say about you on the internet? Nobody, I'm sure, goes on these things thinking, I'm the mess that everyone's going to ridiculing in the office on Monday morning. I hope it's not killing real ambition, but it's hard to tell.
What is next for you?
I'm well advanced on my next book, which I hope to finish over the summer. I recently hit a stumbling point where everything I wrote was crossed out the next day - fingers crossed that's over now. We shall see. The PhD viva is looming now, just over a month to go, so I need to see how I do with that before making my next plans.
James Higgerson is the author of The Almost Lizard, published by Legend Press